A Christian theology professor tries to answer the question that's dominated conversations in bars, dorm rooms, and the pages of ESPN.
Tim Tebow succeeds on the football field because of elves.
You can't see them on television. They're tiny. But when the game gets tight and the Denver Broncos need a fourth-quarter miracle, the elves come out and do his bidding. Forming a dense pack, they push 350-pound lineman aside, knock defensive backs off their stride, and give speed to Demayrius Thomas after he catches a pass.
That's why he wins.
What? You don't buy that? It's a lie, you're right. You know Tebow doesn't accomplish what he does because of elves. But when you hear about his faith, and the connection that some make between his devout Christianity and the success he enjoys on the football field, you might think it's about as likely that Tebow succeeds because of God's direct and benevolent intervention as it is that he wins games because of a roaming band of miniature wood elves.
Both sound ridiculous. God doesn't care about football games, right? If he exists at all, isn't he up there making sure that the planets spin in their proper orbits and, I don't know, that there's enough rainwater falling on Argentinean forests? Doesn't he have better things to do than to propel a certain football team to victories?
As someone who teaches theology to college students, and so is used to winning unlikely attention from the bleary-eyed and skeptical, let me try to answer this question, for several months now the fodder not merely of church youth groups, but of bars, dorm rooms, and the front pages of serious sports sites like ESPN and Bill Simmons's Grantland.
THE DOCTRINE OF PROVIDENCE
The doctrine of providence is a 50-cent phrase from Christian theology. It's basically the idea that God directs all things that happen in this world according to his wise counsel and for the ends, the purposes, that will bring him the most glory. If you've had a class in theology or remember, say, the sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Calvinist preacher Jonathan Edwards (we read it in my Maine public high school, and you may have too), then you may know that this particular idea caused a ruckus throughout history.
MORE ON TIM TEBOW
In the 16th century, guys like Martin Luther, the Tim Tebow of his day (the Pope said he was "like a bull in the church's vineyard," an apt description for Tebow's running style), and John Calvin kick-started what was historically called the "Reformation." This epochal period, which featured the Catholic Church contra mundum and included such hilariously-named religious incidents as the "affair of the sausages," saw a massive rise in interest in God's control over all things, including salvation, the life of Christians, and, well, everything. Medieval Catholicism offered Ye Olde Peasant a worldview in which they cooperated with God to earn salvation; Reformational Protestantism suggested that nothing could thwart the will of God and that salvation came only through divine fiat.
Luther and Calvin drew upon the teachings of Jesus in formulating the doctrine of providence. In the course of arguing with Pharisees, as he seemed to always be doing, Jesus taught that God superintended everything, including even the most ordinary animals of his creation, like the sparrow. "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?," he asked a hostile crowd. "And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father" (Matt. 10:29). In other words, God ordains—or decides—when the sparrow dies and when it lives. According to Scripture, this is true also of what king rules when, how many hairs grow on our heads, and every twist and turn our lives on this fragile sphere take (see Prov. 16:33; 21:1; Matt. 10:30).
BACK TO FOOTBALL
But enough about sausages and Reformers and sparrows—what about Tim Tebow? Does he win because God miraculously propels him to victory? Is the "hand of God," as footballer Diego Maradonna famously called it, directing his passes (or at least his fourth-quarter attempts)?
Yes and no. The Bible says that God oversees everything that happens in this world. He ordains what socks we put on in the morning, how burnt our toast is, what we think about in the day, and everything in between. All things happen "according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will," as the apostle Paul said in Ephesians 1:11. So does that include Tim Tebow and his playmaking? Yes, it surely does.
But, as you can see, this is saying less than you might initially think. I believe that God is overseeing all of Tebow's passes, but he's also overseeing the typing and reading of this paragraph. He's overseeing the Denver Broncos, but he's also overseeing the Boston Celtics (much as it may seem otherwise at present), the Museum of Modern Art, and the playtime of your nephew. He's in control of all things. In this sense, which is called "secondary" causation (God's oversight of all things), the Lord is directing Tebow's life.
But is God directly intervening on the football field in the same way that, for example, he did to cause the virgin birth of Luke 2 (in what is called "primary causation")? That I don't know. It's not clear to my human eyes how this all shakes out. I do know that the Lord is working everything out according to his wise and mysterious counsel which, try as we might, we cannot fully understand.